Saturday, April 27, 2013

On CLUNY BROWN (1946)

Saintly.  Sexy.  Jennifer Jones was a natural beauty and a versatile actress.  Few Hollywood stars could switch as easily and effectively from virgin to vamp as she did.
Her first of five Academy Award nominations came for playing the French peasant girl who would be canonized as St. Bernadette of Lourdes.  Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for her luminous and skillful work in The Song of Bernadette.
Her ephemeral loveliness was an asset again when she played a good girl who travels through time to help an artist in the surreal love story, Portrait of Jennie.
Then she could turn the coin over and get another Oscar nomination for playing the sexy half-breed seeking revenge on the gunslinger who lead her sexually astray.  Duel in the Sun was so chock full o' frontier passion that it was nicknamed Lust in the Dust.


That aspect of the Jennifer Jones roles fascinated me.  She could be so virginal in Since You Went Away, Love Letters and as the inspirational small town schoolteacher in Good Morning, Miss Dove.  Then she could sizzle and bring male hormones to a boil as Madame Bovary, Ruby Gentry and in Gone to Earth.

All those movies were dramas.  She rarely did comedies.  Her first comedy was her best thanks to one of the masters, director Ernst Lubitsch.  Long before Jane Withers became popular in a series of national TV commercials as "Josephine the Plumber," Jennifer Jones played a delightful British girl who could unclog your pipes in a jiffy.  Plumbing was her passion. Her day job was working as a parlor maid.  Her name was Cluny Brown.

When we first meet this perky and pretty young lady from London's lower class, she's wearing a silly and cheerful little hat.  A middle-aged man needs his pipe unclogged.  There's someone at his door.  He opens it.  We see Cluny.  She's a babe.  She says, "Well...shall we have a go at it?"  He doesn't realize she's a plumber.  As the gentleman visiting him says, "You see, she's not dressed for plumbing.  But what woman is?"  If I had to name my Top 5 favorite performances by Jennifer Jones, Cluny Brown would be in the list.  If I had to name my Top 5 favorite performances by Charles Boyer, Cluny Brown would be in the list.  He makes me laugh out loud with this performance as the visitor.

This Lubitsch comedy doesn't get a lot of attention like Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be but you should give it a chance.  I have loved this one for years.  For me, it's truly a "feel-good" movie. In fact, I had a rough day this week.  That night I watched Cluny Brown and laughed myself out of a funk.  That was not the first time this has been my go-to feel-good classic movie.  This movie lets Jennifer Jones have fun and get laughs playing both sides of that coin I mentioned.  Cluny is a good girl.  She has the purity of a saint yet she's also naturally sexy.  A cocktail makes her kittenish.  But she doesn't know where she belongs.  Where would you put a gorgeous girl who wants to bang on your pipes?  Cluny reviews the situation and prepares to practice her passion in the kitchen.  She's a friendly free spirit.

When she's under the sink. we learn what this Lubitsch comedy is about.  It's about social class and one's place in society.  The story starts in London, June 1938.  Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) has managed to flee safely to England.  Hitler hates this writer.  But Hitler hates many people.  While the Londoners fret about the social politics of cocktail parties and teas, Adam knows such class divisions are silly when one considers that Hitler is gobbling up Europe and war is inevitable.  Cluny's wonderful spirit is confused and blocked by social restrictions.  "Cluny Brown, you don't know your place," she's told.  Mr. Belinski, fascinated by her talent for plumbing, feels that what's she been told is utter nonsense.  Her tells her, "Wherever you're happy, that's your place."

She's still under the sink.  But she's fascinated by his philosophy which is summed up in four words:  "Squirrels to the nuts."  Cluny has a cocktail with the two gents.  When her humorless uncle arrives to take her home, he sees how giddy spirits have made her.  She's purring.  He's shocked.
 Cluny's uncle sends her to Friars Carmel Manor in the country to work as a maid.  Gentle Lady Alice and kind Sir Henry mistake Cluny for a friend of the Colonel's.  There, a few years before Brits and Americans unite to rid the world of a global menace and fight for democracy, poor clueless Cluny learns the hard way that it's a major social blunder for the lower class and the upper class to have a cup of tea together.


Who winds up being invited to the manor as a weekend guest?  Mr. Belinksi.  Of course, he's going to fall in love with Cluny.  He keeps her from being fired as a maid. She's still trying to find her place.  She figures the best she can do is perhaps have her place determined by marriage.  She's courted by a most pompous local pharmacist played by Richard Haydn.  The actor is instantly recognizable from Ball of Fire, Please Don't Eat the Daisies and The Sound of Music.  The pharmacist lives with his mother.

Belinski can't stand him.  He's got to deal with this snob and with upper class Brits who, nice as they are, just don't seem to get it.  Do you have upscale liberal friends whose idea of active social involvement against the ills and injustices of society around them is posting a devastating essay they read in Sunday's New York Times onto their Facebook or Twitter pages before they go to brunch?  Then you'll understand how Belinski feels.

If you're a classic film fan, you've heard of "the Lubitsch touch."  Billy Wilder talked about it and idolized the director for it.  Is that touch evident in Cluny Brown?  Yes.  The two senior members of the Friars Carmel Manor domestic staff are the biggest snobs on the whole estate.  Those two older servants, who shudder at the thought of ever being spoken to as equals, are fabulous in their domestic smugness.  Another great touch is the 65 year-old mother of the pharmacist.  She has not one word of dialogue and gets laughs.  Stone-faced Mrs. Wilson just loudly clears her throat in every single scene.  She's practically a human rattle.  Lubitsch lets us imagine what she's thinking and not saying.  It's a wonderful touch.  So is the Fifth Avenue bookstore window sequence.  Not a word is heard and it's like a champagne cocktail.

One of my other favorite scenes that kills me every time is when Adam Belinski tries to reason with the  selfish and shapely Betty Cream.

She's already in bed when he enters her room to beg her to be more democratic in her treatment of people.  He comments on her hair and shoulders.  It's the expression on Boyer's face when his eyes land on her knockers that knocks me out every time.  He had a versatility too and it's often overlooked. He could effectively play the dangerous lover with a darkness in his soul -- like the carnival barker Liliom directed by Fritz Lang (the story later musicalized by Rodgers & Hammerstein and called Carousel)...





...and the abusive husband driving his wife mad in Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman.

He could also play tender lovers like in The Garden of Allah with Marlene Dietrich...

...and the twice-remade but never surpassed Love Affair with Irene Dunne.

Boyer was also a pro at comedy and Cluny Brown is one of his best.  It seems like he had such a ball making this movie.  He gives an absolutely bright sophisticated comedy performance as a clever, quick-minded gentleman whose philosophy is still relevant today.  Charles Boyer is just too cool.  Jennifer Jones is delicious.  So check out this Lubitsch comedy and remember what Mr. Bielinski said:  "Squirrels to the nuts."




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